Book 2 of the Crimson Hawks
In addition to Charming, I’ve been working on the sequel to In the Service of the King. I’m making good progress and looking at a possible Halloween publication. I thought that I’d share a draft of the introduction. Enjoy and thanks for supporting the Hawks! I can also use more reviews and comments. 🙂
For as long as anyone can remember, the Kingdoms of Valinar and Khargoth have struggled along their border, at times raiding one another, and at other times, engaging in all-out war. The balance of power shifted from one side to the other over the centuries, but neither side had ever secured a lasting advantage.
Valinar was known for its Orders of Knighthood, dedicated men who swore themselves to their order, willing to prove themselves against all odds, and competing with the other Orders to prove their skill at arms. The skill of their armorers and blacksmiths was, if not legend, certainly praised throughout the known world, and most men say that only the mighty elephants of the Southern and Eastern Lands are more dangerous than their great warhorses, the Valinar Destriers. Even their regular footman, sworn to the defense of their regent, were known to fight with courage and determination against all foes, perhaps due to a desire to prove themselves worthy to share the field with the knightly Orders.
Their foes from Khargoth were known as a mysterious people from the far North clinging to ancient ways from a time before civilization. Tales abound of witch-queens, cannibalism, human sacrifice, necromancy, demon worship and the like among the people of Khargoth, though certainly many of these stories are exaggerated.
The conflicts between Valinar and Khargoth historically occurred in one of two ways. First, there were the Valinar Crusades. A member of the clergy or the nobility would whip the country of Valinar into a frenzy of outrage at their twisted and evil neighbors and the Orders of Knighthood would all pledge to outdo one another in purging Khargoth from the world. The armies of Valinar would venture into dread Khargoth, liberating anyone they could find, which would be only a scattered few as the people of Khargoth tended to flee into the hills when they found out a crusade was coming. A great battle would take place at some point and win or lose, the crusade would suffer losses. Then, winter would come to Khargoth and take its toll, convincing the proud crusaders to return to the warmth of their homes.
Then there were the Khargoth invasions. Waves of barbarian warriors would surge out of Khargoth into Valinar, wearing only furs and tattoos as armor, with wooden spears and oversized axes as weapons. Exhorted by chanting priests in black robes, these hordes would destroy all in their wake through brute force, not sparing women, children or livestock. Sometimes, warlords in crude metal armor might lead them, other times, scantily clad heavily tattooed women believed to have dark powers. Inevitably, these hordes would be met on the field of battle by the determined defenders of Valinar and the Orders of Knighthood. A great battle would take place which would shatter the horde, and defeated, the scattered survivors of Khargoth would flee back to their homeland.
And so it was for years upon years until the Great Battle of the Ice River. Khargoth had raised an invasion force and had made a crossing during the relatively hot summer after the floods from the spring melts had subsided. They had destroyed a small hamlet near the river and moved perhaps ten miles in the direction of the fertile heartland of Valinar, when they were met on the field by Prince Kaspar and the resplendent flower of Valinarian knighthood.
The battle took place across a set of rolling fields, where the summer crops were doomed to be trampled no matter the outcome. Kaspar, with his golden mane of hair and gleaming armor, shouted encouragement to his fellow knights, all of whom enthusiastically desired to prove their mettle and earn glory for their families against the hordes of Khargoth. For such battles are the nobles of Valinar born and their great destriers bred. No battle line had ever survived a charge by the knights of Valinar, and today would be no different.
The hordes were a shambling mess, holding their weapons crookedly and awkwardly, limping and stumbling forward. They had not waited for a battle cry or a command to charge; they merely poured out of the large number of tents at the Khargoth encampment and surged forward. A few of them fell to their knees in the field and did not move.
The knights did not notice the odd behavior or that the men and women in this horde were smaller than the barbarian invaders from the stories of their youth. They did not question that there was no roar of a battle cry. The strange black tents placed evenly at the edge of the Khargoth camp, conspicuous from their color and because no warriors staggered from them, drew little attention. No, the knights and their leader, Prince Kaspar, were focused on victory. Pointing his sword, Kaspar shouted the command to charge, and the knights moved as one.
The ground shook with every hoofbeat and some of the enemy tried to turn and flee. Still others collapsed. A few half-naked warriors armed with battle-axes could be seen in the Khargoth encampment, each one appearing more formidable than any of the masses in the field, but they held back and waited. Even if they had taken the field, the results would have been the same – gory carnage for the glory of Valinar.
Only the weight of the bodies slowed the knights. Not a single member of the horde put up a fight as they were smashed by steel-shod hooves or skewered at lance point. Still, the charge lost momentum, and finally, the clouds of imagined glory cleared from the minds of the knights.
According to the survivors, it was Prince Kaspar who first noticed what had happened.
He looked down on his crushed foe and saw that she was slightly plump and had a stick tied to her arm. Her features were those of a Valinarian commoner, and though her clothes were filthy and she had a fur on her shoulders, her clothes marked her as Valinarian as well. After the initial shock of his observation, he dismounted to examine the corpse more closely and saw that her tongue was missing.
They had slain their own people.
“Stop!” he shouted. “They are our people. It’s a trick!”
The perfect battle line of charging knights had become a disorganized mass of horrified men. A few tore off their helms in dismay and disgust. Some dismounted to try and aid the trampled people.
Loud shrieking whistles pierced the air, causing even some of the battle-trained horses to rear. With a creaking and humming, the black tents opened as blasts of steam rent the air. What stepped forth were constructs, mechanical creations, vaguely in the shape of men, towering over knights and men as if they were giants. They raised their heavy iron arms and sprayed fire over the hosts of knighthood.
Men melted along with their armor, and the finest steeds in the world burned. The ground shook as the machines marched forward, some swinging massive maces, crushing everything they struck. Others screeched and lurched forward, simply crushing anything that found itself underfoot.
For the first time in recorded history, the knights of Valinar panicked. Several fell from their steeds to be trampled by their comrades who tried to flee. More gouts of flame consumed those who tried to fight. One of the constructs swung a chain with a blade attached with enough speed to eviscerate whatever it touched.
Prince Kaspar stood his ground bravely, though his horse had long fled, as one of the constructs loomed over him. He shouted, “For Valinar!” and charged, before a metal arm crushed him.
The flower of knighthood was no more.
When King Denis of Valinar was informed of the crushing defeat and the death of his son, his heir, the court fell silent. Age had fallen heavily on the king in the last few years since the queen had passed, and all knew that he had considered stepping aside for his son. Now, in the twilight of his reign, he faced a catastrophe as great as any that had fallen upon Valinar.
After several moments, the King spoke.
“Can anyone tell me where my daughter is?”
There was a collective set of uncomfortable shuffling and gasps. The king had not spoken of his disinherited disgrace of a daughter in years. Some believe that his separation from her had driven the queen to despair and ultimately, to her death.
One of his advisors, Boris, stepped forward. He took a deep bow. “Your Royal Majesty, as per your directions, we have kept men watching her through her travels. She spends most of her time in a merchant city at a tavern.”
“What? She has fallen to serving drinks?” he said, somewhat astonished.
“No, sire, it is the headquarters of a mercenary company.”
“She’s a mercenary?” the king said, seemingly to himself. He nodded. “We will need men to defend Valinar from these diabolic creations of Khargoth, but… she will not come.” He sighed.
“I’m certain that if her company were contracted that she would come. The captain of her mercenary company can be persuasive, I’m told, and I’m also informed that your daughter is very close to him.”
More silence spread across the court. A dark look fell over King Denis’ face.
“What is the name of this captain who is close to my daughter?”